Thursday, July 31

Demons At Dusk: Is this account of the Myall Creek massacre as bad as the 'experts' claim?

In my long post on the Myall Creek massacre, I promised to justify my praise for Peter Stewart's book Demons at Dusk. And again, that has resulted in a long, long post. I can only plead that I believe this essay deserves the extra length. That's Peter in the photo.

There are writing faults in Demons at Dusk, but they are not so bad they ruin the book – despite suggestions on Jennifer Byrne's First Tuesday Book Club on ABC TV.

This post may not make sense unless you read the ABC transcript first.

To me, when panellist Marieke Hardy called Demons “an incredibly poorly written book”, she said more about herself than the book. Perhaps that's because I'm a journalist, and I value writers who use words with precision as well as vigour. “Poorly written”, I might buy. But “incredibly” so?

And turning to the views of panellist Johanna Featherstone, I find it a bit rich that someone who utters a sentence like this could accuse an author of poor writing:

Well I thought it was a poorly written book and I also thought it's a very difficult book to discuss for a few reasons and first of all the Foreword and the story that you get about the author is very manipulative too so you're told before you read it that this book is this great book that everybody should respond to, a very important one to know so you feel like you have a responsibility to read it, which makes it hard to criticise.

However, Stewart hasn't made my defence easy with this, the first sentence of his book:

The biting cold of this wretched London night had slithered through every crack of the large terrace house, but it did not prevent a nervous sweat from crawling down the back of the young apprentice as he crept slowly - his feet anchored by guilt - into his master's bedroom.

Apart from reminding the reader of that classic intro, It was a dark and stormy night, the opening sentence reeks of over-writing. Creeping with one's feet anchored by guilt – that's a good trick. And someone should tell Stewart about unneeded adverbs. How else would one creep but slowly?

But the writing does improve, despite some problems with the vernacular dialogue of 19th century convicts. Or perhaps it's that as the material becomes so compelling, the reader stops nit-picking about literary style and focuses on the unfolding story.

That was my experience with Demons. Early in the book, I found some passages jarred. But as I read further, I became so absorbed in the story I no longer noticed the writing techniques which conveyed it. That's not poor writing, surely?

However, if you can wade through more of Ms Featherstone's syntax, she does bring up some other important issues:

Then of course there's the whole issue of fiction writers recreating true histories which is hard in dealing with history and then there's the idea of a non-indigenous writer taking on the persona of indigenous characters and then how do you write dialogue accordingly, without making it sound, and I think you used, not jocular but the sort of caricature that sometimes comes across where you have taking on these different braves [the ABC's transcription software may have misheard something here] that I just found fraudulent and I couldn't believe and I think the same with the approach to violence, I think there was some really gross, awful scenes, but that's not why it didn't work, it's because I thought the writer had absolutely no quality control of language.

May this Grumpy Old Journo try to extricate some of the ideas buried in this morass, and discuss them individually?

First, the historical novel. Let's be blunt – but for novelists, many older Australians would know little of their nation's history. Until halfway through the 20th century, our respectable academic and professional historians delivered an account of Australia's development as a subset of the history of Britain's imperial glory.

When Australian historians finally did turn to Australian sources for their accounts, they found novelists, such as Eleanor Dark with The Timeless Land, had already mined the archives for background to their stories.

When I grew up in Perth, most West Australians knew more of their state's colonial history from Rix Weaver, a remarkable woman who wrote three well-crafted romantic novels – Behold New Holland, New Holland Heritage and Beyond Cooralong – than from anything they learned at school. Two heavyweights of Perth academic and intellectual life, Paul Hasluck and Public Librarian J .S. Battye, contributed forewords attesting to the accuracy of the historical background of her novels.

Of course, Demons at Dusk is not a novel with an historical background – it's something different, a history embellished with characters and conversations developed in the author's mind. Is that legitimate? I believe it is provided the author takes care to explain what is historically accurate, and what is conjecture – along with the basis for that conjecture – and Peter Stewart does that.

No-one takes Peter Carey to task for his fictionalised True History of the Kelly Gang – and after reading that book, one knows more about the life and times of Ned Kelly than from any formal history. But then Carey is part of the literary establishment, isn't he?

It's known the Myall Creek hutkeeper George Anderson had sex with an Aboriginal woman named Ipeta (or Heppita in some accounts). The trial evidence shows that when the Myall Creek murderers offered him one of the “jins”, he asked if they would instead spare the woman he'd had before. The murderers refused and led Ipeta away to be slaughtered.

Peter Stewart (and some writers before him) have developed this evidence into a theme about Anderson's love for Ipeta. Here's a passage from Demons at Dusk:

. . . now, as she stood in front of him on the creek bank, Anderson only allowed himself to look at her briefly - but it was long enough for him to take in every detail of her form. Her deep brown eyes were soft and kind, and her smile warm and gentle. Her smooth, dark skin glistened in the morning sunlight as water dripped from the curls of her thick black hair. For what seemed like an age to him but was actually only a moment, he watched as a droplet fell from her hair to her shoulder, slid over her breast to the tip of her nipple, where it paused momentarily before falling to the ground at her feet. Their eyes met briefly.

(Um, yes, perhaps that is a bit overwritten.) Is there a factual base to this tale of love? We can never know, but it's possible. Anderson, a young apprentice transported from London for having robbed his master, had been assigned to work for squatter Henry Dangar. Before sending him out to Myall Creek, Dangar had him punished with 100 lashes – a savage punishment, even by the standards of the day – for neglect of duty (Anderson was to tell the Myall Creek trials he did not deserve that punishment – he was helping a fellow convict move some cattle).

So it's possible Ipeta was the very first woman with whom Anderson had sex, and young men tend to fall in love – especially if Ipeta offered him special understanding because of compassion for this sad dogsbody.

Fictionalised narratives can help our understanding. For me, it came at the end of the court evidence when Anderson replied to a question. He'd heard only two shots. The party which led the victims over the hill had two swords [it was three, but one snapped some time during the slaughter].

Stewart uses an imagined conversation at the bar table to spell out the horror – with just two or three swords and up to 28 tied-up victims, most the Aborigines watched the killings taking place as they waited their turn.

The children would have seen many of their playmates decapitated.

Literary devices and literary language are not the only ways we tell our stories. Perhaps I may give as an example the story of Jimmy Governor. At the start of the last century, in July 1900, Governor and Jacky Underwood murdered the woman and children of a settler's family near Gilgandra in the central west of New South Wales, For months, until Governor's capture just north of Wingham in late October, newspapers carried many columns about the manhunt for the “Breelong blacks”.

More than half a century later, Australian writer Frank Clune reprised the story in a shortish paperback, Jimmy Governor (Horwitz, 1959), adding thoughts and conversations in a technique similar to that of Peter Stewart in Demons at Dusk.

To the literary establishment, Clune was beneath notice. His name appears nowhere in the Oxford History of Australian Literature edited by Leonie Kramer. Yet this popular writer – he penned more than sixty historical books, travel books (many were of the “wandering around Australia” type) and autobiographical works – probably told his fellow Australians more about their nation than any historian. Perhaps more than any novelist.

[Penned may be the wrong word for many of those works – many of Clune's books were ghostwritten by left literary lion P.R. "Inky" Stephenson, although Clune would have kept control of the output.]

In his Literature and the Aborigine in Australia (University of Queensland Press, 1978), academic J.J. Healy called Clune's Jimmy Governor “factual, compassionate, and intelligent”.

Perhaps it's worth quoting the last sentence of Clune's book:

I had nightmares for months after viewing this horrible sight [a waxworks tableau of Governor killing the Mawby family], and I avoided aborigines for years, until I found that they are decent, loyal and true friends.

Next up was Thomas Keneally, who retold the story with The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (Angus & Robertson, 1972), which Fred Schepisi made into a film. But Keneally – who described his book as “highly fictional” – was to say he would not write such a book again because of the sensitivities involved in writing about a different culture (“A new chant for Jimmie Blacksmith”, Sydney Morning Herald Spectrum, 25-26 August 2001).

This is the issue to which Ms Featherstone referred with “ a non-indigenous writer taking on the persona of indigenous characters”. Yet, would an indigenous Australian be any more entitled to write of Jimmy Governor/Blacksmith? Governor was “half-caste”, in the terminology of the day, and according to Clune was light-skinned and had reddish hair. He strove to be part of white society.

To carry through with the logic of Keneally (and presumably Ms Featherstone), the author would have to be of 50-50 white and indigenous parentage to be entitled to write Jimmy Governor's story. To my mind, that's a bit precious. If the story-tellers are sensitive and accurate, we can accept their work.

If the stories are told competently – as well being worthwhile “yarns” – the authors have created something of value even when they fall short of some people's literary standards. Perhaps that is so with Clune's Jimmy Governor and Stewart's Demons at Dusk.

I have skipped over another point in the Tuesday Book Club debate – the argument between Ms Byrne and her other women panellists on one side, and another panelist, Peter FitzSimons on the other. FitzSimons is a former rugby international, now a Fairfax sports writer and columnist, a radio commentator, and author of well received books on Kokoda and the North Africa campaign. He became unstinting in his support for Demons at Dusk after Peter Stewart sent the manuscript to him.

Perhaps critics also dismissed Demons because Stewart did not secure a mainstream publisher. Sid Harta is a “partnership publisher” – one which normally requires authors to contribute to the publishing costs.

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